Nasa is developing new tools to boost the autonomy of its astronauts when operating spacecraft and systems. The agency hopes that this will allow astronauts to become less dependent on assistance from Nasa’s ground-based Mission Control Center in Houston, Texas.

Communications delays between International Space Station (ISS) crews and the ground are nearly unnoticeable, thanks to being routed between tracking and data relay satellites to reach the spacecraft just 250 miles above Earth’s surface. However, as Nasa prepares for a return to the Moon (240,000 miles from Earth) and eventually Mars (250 million miles), it will face ever longer communications delays. The space agency is thus considering tools to increase astronaut autonomy for operating spacecraft and systems.

The T2AR project demonstrates how station crew can inspect and maintain scientific and exercise equipment on board without assistance from ground teams.

Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Soichi Noguchi kicked off T2AR activities on the ISS, using the tool to perform maintenance on a piece of exercise equipment, the T2 Treadmill. Normally, the inspection procedure is available as a PDF document accessed on a computer or tablet, which can be hard to hold while operating tools or examining the equipment in a tight space. Using the AR goggles (Microsoft HoloLens) which incorporate procedure-tracking software developed by Nasa, Noguchi had step-by-step guidance and cues to assist in the work without having to switch his attention to a different screen.

The demonstration used 3D directional cues to direct the astronaut’s gaze to the correct work sites and displayed the procedure instructions. The device followed an astronaut’s verbal instructions to navigate procedures and displayed AR cues and procedure text over the hardware for the corresponding procedure steps being performed. Other assistive information could also be displayed, such as instructional videos and system overlays.

T2AR is the first in-space operational use of the HoloLens in combination with custom-built AR software, which enables an astronaut to perform unassisted maintenance and inspections on a major piece of crew support hardware.

“AR tools hold the promise of allowing us to pre-package guidance and expertise,” said ISS scientist Bryan Dansberry. “The space station is the perfect platform to test out AR systems and refine these tools so they will be ready when future astronauts need them. Closer to home, these tests help to mature software and AR technology now so expertise and support are available in remote locations around the world.”

Since Noguchi’s trial run with T2AR, astronauts Thomas Pesquet of ESA and Megan McArthur of Nasa have also used the tool on the ISS. Nine further test sessions remain in the technology demonstration plan.

While this demonstration was currently limited to the critical T2 Treadmill, the platform is designed to be used across a wider range of needs in the future, including tasks for future Moon and Mars mission, during which Earth-to-astronaut communication delays will be significant.

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